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Riverhead physicist receives coveted research award

Raju Venugpalan2

An accomplished physicist from Riverhead is the latest recipient of a competitive and prestigious award for his achievements in theoretical nuclear physics.

Raju Venugopalan, senior scientist and group leader at Brookhaven National Laboratory, found out in October that he was selected for the Humboldt Research Award. He is one of 14 physicists from the lab who have received the award since 1974.

“It’s a great honor,” the 11-year Riverhead resident said. The award amounts to about $70,000 and the opportunity to collaborate with German researchers.

“The award from the Humboldt Foundation is a great honor for Raju and Brookhaven Lab,” said associate laboratory director Berndt Mueller. “One of the great advantages of this award is the opportunity to bring students and [postdoctorals] from Germany to Brookhaven, which helps strengthen our research program here as well as our international connections.”

As a theoretical physicist, Mr. Venugopalan deals in intellectual puzzles, working to develop theories to explain and predict the behavior of extreme forms of nuclear matter, such as quarks and gluons.

“We try to kind of put this puzzle together,” he said. “How these objects give mass to matter. How do these things, the smallest objects we can’t even visualize that exist as much as you and I, how do they generate all the patterns that we see in the universe?”

It involves being creative and coming up with new ideas, in a way no different that being a poet or writer, he said. A typical day of work for him is spent thinking, writing equations and collaborating with PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve been wanting to do it since I was 15 years old. For me it’s like breathing. I don’t think of it as work.”

This past year, he has been on sabbatical in Germany at the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Heidelberg University. The Humboldt Award, named after Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt, will give him the opportunity to build on connections he’s made with colleagues.

“It’s a great opportunity to keep going back there frequently,” he said. His wife, Laura, and their nine-year-old daughter, Anjali, joined him the past year in Germany. Ms. Venugopalan is fluent in German and their daughter learned the language during her time in the country, he said.

“I’m kind of the slacker in the family,” he joked. “My German still is pretty bad.”

It is safe to say Mr. Venugopalan, who’s also an adjunct professor at Stony Brook University, is well-versed in a different language — mathematics.

“One of the amazing things about the world is that it can be actually described in a language, which is mathematics,” he said. “And if you think about it for a few minutes, it’s actually shocking that that’s true. You can scribble down some equations and that actually describes the world or important pieces of it.”

Photo caption: Raju Venugopalan of Riverhead. (BNL courtesy photo)

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